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The Triumvirate (1): Welded   Next


Of the three plays of the period that conform to Cheney’s “psychologic” category, Welded is the least satisfactory. A failure in its own time, it has not had a recorded revival in this country, although it has a relatively successful production history in Sweden and Denmark. O’Neill began the play in 1922, and completed it the following February. It was produced by the Experimental Theatre in cooperation with Edgar Selwyn on March 17, 1924, in a trouble-ridden production that was universally damned. Neither the director, Stark Young, nor the stars, Doris Keane and Jacob Ben-Ami, had faith in the play, and, although O’Neill complained that in certain respects the actors had failed to realize the work in their performances, he was finally inclined to shrug it off as not worthy.

While he wrote it, however, it seemed to him unusually significant. The play is a development of the exploration of marriage begun in Diff’rent and The First Man, cast this time in what appears to be a fictional representation of his own marriage with Agnes O’Neill. The protagonists are a playwright, Michael Cape, and his actress wife, Eleanor. The rivalry of their careers, the demands made by the playwright on his wife, the sense conveyed of marriage as a special kind of mutual commitment all suggest that the work contains autobiographical elements. Yet whatever the reflection of his life story, it is relegated to the background by his effort to write a play that will be entirely “real.” O’Neill’s comment on the play shows how completely he has accepted the tenets of the Art Theatre with reference to the new realism:

I want to write a play that is truly realistic. That term is used loosely on the stage, where most of the so-called realistic plays deal only with the appearance of things, while a truly realistic play deals with what might be called the soul of the character. It deals with a thing which makes the character that person and no other. Strindberg’s Dance of Death is an example of that real realism. In the last two plays—The Fountain and the one I am working on now (Welded)—I feel that I’m getting back as far as it is possible in modern times to get back, to the religious in the theatre. The only way we can get religion back is through an exultance over the truth, through an exultant acceptance of life.25

The reference to The Dance of Death makes clear that in Welded, O’Neill continued to write about modern marriage in Strindberg’s vein.* Yet there is an important change from such earlier studies as Bread and Butter, Before Breakfast, Beyond the Horizon and The First Man. Indeed, there are changes from Strindberg himself, as if O’Neill were seeking a truth different from Strindberg’s. Although Michael is presented as a creative artist trapped by marriage as the earlier heroes had been, he and his wife are more than “two corpses chained together.” The difference is in the presentation of the woman, who now is more—and is felt by her husband to be more—than either a destroyer of her husband’s genius or a victim of his selfishness as Ruth Mayo and Martha Jayson were. Eleanor is neither victim nor villain. She is now given the status of full partner in the marriage, and as such she has an identity in her own right and is a real participant in the struggle to establish the right grounds for their relationship.

The new concern for women does not mean that the play is free of Strindbergian touches. At one point the play’s hero is driven to attempt to strangle his wife, and at another he inveighs against women with Strindbergian misogyny: “You’re all the tortures man inflicts on woman—and you’re the revenge of women! You’re love revenging itself upon itself! You’re the suicide of love—of my love—of all love since the world began!” (475) Yet, despite such passages, Eleanor is more sympathetically envisioned and more fully developed than any earlier heroine except Anna Christie. It is at least possible that O’Neill realized the fact, for at one point he has his
playwright hero comment on the qualities of the women characters in his plays before he had met Eleanor: “Why, my women used to be death masks. But now they’re alive as you are.” (445)

Eleanor Cape is not more “alive” than Anna Christie. Nevertheless, her character is much more complex and demanding than that of any of his earlier figures. To this point in his career, O’Neill’s characters have been presented vividly, but without significant inner conflict. Even Robert Mayo, in whom something like an inner struggle emerges, is really caught in a tension between the land and sea. His is a conflict that has a physical, not psychological cause. Alone among the earlier characters, Emma Crosby seems impelled to her strange choices by some division of elements that emerge deeply from within her personality. Yet she, like the others, is seen for the most part from the outside, and the truth of her nature remains unclear.

O’Neill’s dramaturgy, especially his use of the monologue, had suggested much earlier that psychological probing was to be a major element of his theatre, and in Welded, he attempts for the first time to present the inner struggle of his characters more directly than by detailing their response to external physical conflict. Now imagery and a variety of technical devices arc brought into play to illuminate their psyches.

One of the clearest signs of the new view of character is O’Neill’s insistence that Michael and Eleanor are psychologically masked, and that their persons are therefore divided between an exterior and an interior being. Repeatedly he speaks of them as wearing “masks,” and of Eleanor’s face in particular as “mask-like.”** It is an image confined for the most part to the stage directions and not, therefore, entirely viable in theatre, but other technical devices aid the suggestion that they are divided souls.

In his lighting plan, for example, O’Neill attempts to dramatize the intense reality of the private lives beneath the mask. He has always used small patches of area lighting to express the isolation and loneliness of his characters. Now, however, he very deliberately calls for a radically innovative lighting plan that is aimed at inner illumination. With one unimportant exception, O’Neill does not permit any conventional light sources on his stage—no lamps, fireplaces, windows.*** To dramatize the isolated inner condition of his characters, O’Neill uses only two pieces of lighting equipment, two follow-spots, one centered on Michael, the other on Eleanor. The other characters are seen only in the light that spills from these, and have, in consequence, importance only to the protagonists. Michael and Eleanor move, each alone in his egocentric circle, speaking across a void of darkness which their love must somehow bridge.**** If it does nothing else, the lighting scheme, like the imagery of the masks, would underscore the impression of the double life that is the source of the characters’ mutual antagonism.

The impression of life-in-isolation is conveyed through other physical means. For example, early in the play when, after a quarrel, Eleanor and Michael are estranged to the breaking point, O’Neill calls for them to sit in two chairs, stage center, each speaking words that the other hears, yet does not hear:

Their chairs are side by side, each facing front, so near that by a slight movement each could touch the other, but during the following scene they stare straight ahead and remain motionless. They speak, ostensibly to the other, but showing by their tone it is a thinking aloud to oneself, and neither appears to hear what the other has said. (452)

The effect is repeated at the beginning of Act III, as the process of their reunion begins.

O’Neill’s earlier concern for sound in his plays is now evident not in an extensive use of offstage sound effects or in choric patterns of dialogue. In this play, he uses silence. Commenting on the production, he said that the actors did not understand the use of the pauses indicated in the script, especially in the third act, where “What was actually spoken should have served to a great extent just to punctuate the meaningful pauses.”26 The pauses are extensive in number and in length. For example, in two pages, (484-5) twelve long pauses are called for. They are not in any ordinary sense pauses for rhetorical effect, nor are they to be filled with stage business. To the contrary, they slow the action to a halt and cause the characters to appear as if they are in some strange trance. Words float up through silence tentatively and with the greatest hesitation as the man and the woman grope toward one another. Silence is a vital part of the play’s emotional substance suggesting an inexpressible yearning born of isolation.

Each of these technical inventions is designed to destroy the play’s realism and move its style toward what O’Neill called “supernaturalism.” In 1924, for the opening production of the Experimental Theatre, The Spook Sonata, O’Neill wrote a program note praising Strindberg as “the precursor of all modernity in our present theatre.” Strindberg carried naturalism to such a peak of perfection that a play like The Dance of Death must be called “supernaturalism” to indicate something of its rare quality. The old naturalism represents “our Fathers’ daring aspirations toward self-recognition by holding the family kodak up to ill-nature.” Today, such playwriting is banal: “We are ashamed of having peeked through so many keyholes, squinting always at heavy, uninspired bodies—the fat facts—with not a nude spirit among them; we have been sick with appearances and are convalescing; we ‘wipe out and pass on’ to some as yet unrealized region where our souls, maddened by loneliness and the ignoble inarticulateness of flesh, are slowly evolving their new language of kinship.” And he coins a phrase to define the qualities of Strindberg’s further move to expressionism, calling The Spook Sonata a “behind-life” play.27

O’Neill’s praise of Strindberg for his ability to penetrate surfaces by the intensification of “naturalism” is parallel to Macgowan’s praise of Chekhov and to Cheney’s sense that the “psychologic” theatre of the new movement should deal with “inner spiritual forces rather than with outward melodramatic happenings.”*****

Clearly the intention of O’Neill’s stage devices is to prevent Welded from being viewed as a merely “naturalistic” play. Played with conventional lighting and blocking, the pauses overridden by actors who are enacting the feeble narrative rather than the characters, Welded is a sorry spectacle—the story of two hopelessly egoistic artists who have difficulty in their marriage, who separate with the wife seeking a love affair with a family friend and the husband going to a prostitute, but who come at last together in an incomprehensibly ecstatic reunion. Under such circumstances, the play is meaningless, its dialogue absurd, its theme vacuous.

Welded in final estimate may be all these things, but in its attempt it is very different from the conventional judgments it has received. O’Neill’s plot is less a narrative than a design. Its movement in time and space is unimportant. What O’Neill has tried to achieve is a movement in depth, below surfaces, in order to image as directly as possible “the lonely life of one’s own which suffers in solitude.” (477) Such suffering is out of time, and the Capes are cut off from any significant outside reality. Away from one another they have no life. What hope exists for them lies in their being able to reach one another. The action of the play is almost entirely a spiritual action, developed in isolation and silence.

Although it leaves the inanities of his first long play, Servitude, far behind, Welded develops its theme in part from that juvenile work which was also concerned with the marriage of a playwright and which centered on the theme of “Pan in Logos,” the discovery of a God in marriage. Its relation to the sense of “difference” that Emma Crosby wished to find in her marriage to Caleb is also marked. Indeed the treatment in Welded of such questions as mutual possession and the total commitment to another human being defines the issues murkily set forth in Diff’rent.

As a playwright, Michael Cape is one in the line of O’Neill’s poet figures. His artistry, compared to Eleanor’s acting, is primary in its creativity, hers secondary, and O’Neill stresses his belief that he has created her as an artist by providing her with the roles she plays. To a degree, the state of the marriage reflects these assumptions concerning their professional lives. Michael is the primary, the moving energy that shapes the relationship, while Eleanor is forced into a role he devises for her and which threatens her sense of selfhood.

The poet in Michael drives him to search for a true spiritual reality, a creative source that has the power of a God. Michael, however, is not a poetical farmhand mooning toward the horizon. He cannot unite, as do less sophisticated characters O’Neill has drawn, with some powerful element in nature that will be a God for him. To find his truth, he must create it by evolving it through marriage. In a conception somewhat allied to the Nietzschean view of marriage’s possibilities expressed in Thus Spake Zarathustra, he speaks of the sacrament they have sworn:

We swore to have a true sacrament—or nothing! Our marriage must be a consummation demanding and combining the best in each of us! Hard, difficult, guarded from the commonplace, kept sacred as the outward form of our inner harmony! (448)

He describes his quest in terms that might have been used by Curtis Jayson, of primitive cellular creation:

. . . let’s be proud of our fight! It began with the splitting of a cell a hundred million years ago into you and me, leaving an eternal yearning to become one life again. . . . You and I—year after year—together—forms of our bodies merging into one form; rhythm of our lives beating against each other, forming slowly the one rhythm—the life of Us—created by us!—beyond us, above us! (448)

Toward the end, Michael exclaims that “Life guides me back through the hundred million years to you. It reveals a beginning in unity that I may have faith in the unity of the end.” (488)

Michael’s conception of life as having a total unity and of love as being a manifestation of faith in that unity lies at the core of Welded. Michael asks Eleanor to turn inward, into love, to help him cut them both away from the world outside and to lose her individuality with him in complete union. She cannot do so. She is not endowed with her husband’s vision, and for her to possess him completely does not involve a loss of the sense of self. Yet she too is searching. She speaks of her need for love, for something she has been unable to find until her marriage. In its early days, the marriage was the end of her quest. She cries: “I lost myself. I began living in you. I wanted to die and become you!” (447) As she says, it was a difficult ideal: “Sometimes I think we’ve demanded too much. Now there’s nothing left but that something which can’t give itself. And I blame you for this—because I can neither take more nor give more—and you blame me! . . . And then we fight!” (448)

There comes a point when a commitment as total as dying must be made. At this brink Eleanor draws back and when she does, Michael’s action becomes for her an intolerable burden. In the love scene which opens the first act, it is as if Michael were hypnotizing her. She is drawn into his passion, fired with his fire. An interruption occurs, and she breaks from the spell, her body reacting “as if she were throwing off a load.” (449) She explains it as rebellion:

It’s so beautiful—and then—suddenly I’m being crushed. I feel a cruel presence in you paralyzing me, creeping over my body, possessing it so it’s no longer my body—the grasping at some last inmost thing which makes me—my soul—demanding to have that, too! I have to rebel with all my strength—seize any pretext! Just now at the foot of the stairs—the knock on the door was—liberation. . . . And yet I love you! It’s because I love you! If I’m destroyed, what is left to love you, what is left for you to love? (453)

In the woman’s terms, awareness is essential to love. It is more like possession than commitment. She tells him, “I desire to take all of you into my heart,” which means, in effect, to possess him completely. “My love for him,” she cries at one point, “is my own, not his! (469)

Her resistance is destructive. When he cannot bring her to a point of surrender, he breaks away and goes to a prostitute, trying to use sex as a means of revenge. She in turn seeks an affair with a friend. Neither, however, can bring such sterile drives to their goals. The will to deny life is powerless and the quest for unity continues.

At the time of its New York production Welded was dubbed the “I love you-I hate you play” but it is not an account of an off-again, on-again romance, nor is it the story of the attempt of a man and wife to possess one another. The play’s central conflict emerges from Eleanor’s desire to remain aware so that she may possess his love and Michael’s insistence that they both renounce the sense of self entirely, so that they may possess and be possessed, mutually, equally, with only the sense of union, the source of life itself to give their relationship meaning. At the end, while both realize that any unity they may achieve is transitory and that vision is ephemeral, both make a deliberate attempt to renounce self to attain Michael’s goal. The vision failing, they will be cast again into torment, but this burden must be accepted:

Our life is to bear together our burden which is our goal—on and up! Above the world, beyond its vision—our meaning! (488)

At the last moment of the play, arms outstretched, Michael and Eleanor moving in a semi-hypnotic, trance-like state find their way to one another. Their united bodies form a cross, symbolic of both the burden and the exaltation, and suggesting that the vision “above the world,” the sense of God in marriage, can be achieved only by a wholehearted willingness to accept both the torment and the joy of total communion.

In many of its aspects—much of its dialogue, the entire second act—Welded is totally unsatisfactory. Yet there is a difference between a bad work of art and something that is merely bad. Welded, however inadequate its execution, is not a shoddy piece of commercial theatre, and it is conceived within the scope of theatre art as the best practitioners defined it in 1922. The problem of breaking through the realistic aspects of the play to the “supernaturalism” O’Neill admired in Strindberg is not here successfully solved. Yet the play clarifies much with which O’Neill had been concerned since his tyro days, and it points ahead in a variety of ways, thematically and technically, toward the final achievement in the group of marriage studies, Strange Interlude. Certainly it is a far and remarkable step beyond the simple problem play, The First Man, to the complexities of characterization and technique revealed in Welded. O’Neill’s next venture in this line, his next “supernatural” play was to prove even more difficult and was, in some ways, less successful.

* On January 23, 1922, Sidney Howard wrote to his sister that his wife, the actress Glare Eames, “has been playing special performances of that dreary moron, Maeterlinck, and is going on, now, to do a Eugene O’Neill play—very powerful and line and an extraordinary comedy of modern marriage for two people in seven acts—called “Made in Heaven.” I read it last night. It’s horrid but downright thrilling.” The play became Welded. Miss Eames did not, however, play the role.

** Cf. 462: “her face growing mask-like and determined”; 463: ‘‘her face like a mask”; 465: “her face again becomes mask-like....”

*** The exception is in Act II, scene ii, in the prostitute’s room. As Michael and the girl enter, a glow from a streetlight on the window shade and a light from the hallway silhouettes the entrance.

**** The New York production was not lighted in so unconventional a manner (cf. Törnqvist, A Drama of Souls, 107), but the experiment might prove interesting. While follow-spots, muted by general stage lighting, are used to increase the radiance on star performers, such unrelieved illumination in the theatre would be very difficult, even painful to watch. Nevertheless, the harshness and the physical pressure are not irrelevant to the qualities of the play. Stark black and white comprise the essence of the work; there is no color, no softening of the effect. The raw follow-spots would stress this and might work to excellent theatrical purpose. Among other things, when Michael and Eleanor come together, as at the play’s end, the increased brilliance of the overlapping spotlights would have an important emotional effect.

***** O’Neill’s “supernaturalistic” techniques are studied at length in Törnqvist, A Drama of Souls.


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